When considering some of the milestone moments in feminist history, events like the Seneca Falls Conference of 1848, the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may come to mind.
But author Lisa Levenstein wants to highlight the importance of an often overlooked decade for women’s rights: the 1990s.
“This was actually one of the most pivotal decades, I believe, for feminist history,” she said.
Levenstein is the Director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at UNC Greensboro and the author of They Didn’t See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties.
She spoke with Nerdette about the importance of the ‘90s and how it shaped feminism today. Below are highlights. Press the play button to hear the conversation.
The feminist impact in the 1990s
Lisa Levenstein: Most of the significant changes did not happen on a policy level. We can talk about how the Family Medical Leave Act was passed, for example, or the Violence Against Women Act, which was actually quite controversial in feminist circles because it really was a very law-enforcement-heavy approach, which now with the rise of Black Lives Matter and other forms of feminism we see that there’s some real problems in that paradigm for addressing the problem of violence against women.
But I believe that the biggest change was really a culture change. It was really about the ideas of feminism, particularly ideas like intersectionality. The idea that our identities are fused — it’s not just about gender, it’s also about race and class and sexuality, and we can’t separate one of those parts of our identity from the other.
But also understanding the world. This is also a time when feminism becomes part of many other social movements. So there’s a real strain of feminism within the labor movement that develops, which we can see the fruits of today with the fight for $15 and the predominance of women and women of color within that movement. There’s a strain of feminism that also happens simultaneously in the environmental movement. And also some of the most major institutions, such as healthcare, law, academia, higher education.
Greta Johnsen: And you just mean ladies getting jobs?
Levenstein: Exactly, but not just ladies getting jobs. Actually feminists getting jobs. People who see social change as their life’s work. That’s what they’re going to do when they become a lawyer or a doctor or a professor. That’s a really different kind of attitude, and we start to see women getting these kinds of jobs and really promoting change in other kinds of ways that aren’t necessarily about lobbying in D.C.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.